Mumbai Footsore

The plan was for me to have two days sightseeing in Mumbai on my return from Ahmedabad on Tuesday morning but a goods train derailment put paid to that. Actually, I was probably very lucky that they managed to get one track open after a few hours because otherwise I’d have been turned off the train somewhere in Southern Gujarat but, as it was, I made it into Bandra Terminus, filthy dirty, starving hungry and only about six hours late. Some plonker of a taxi-wallah made the mistake of trying to propel me into and absurdly overpriced ride back to Sunil’s flat and got to see an attack of the screaming ab-dabs he won’t forget in a hurry. “Officer! Officer! Over here! These guys are trying to cheat me!”. Wrong move.

Thank goodness for Sunil’s Air India chums back at base, because I was soon feeling human again and planning a one day sightseeing tour for the morrow. I took a taxi across the Sealink to The Gateway of India and more or less followed the guidebook down-town walking tour: armed with comfortable shoes, a few pages ripped out of the Lonely Planet and a spare, fully charged camera battery. The Times of India Arts Festival was an added bonus but I got a bit lost on the way to the Synagogue and ended up by the Naval Dockyard. At the muster point I saw a sign marked “Women and Officers Only” but some photographs are just not worth getting shot for.

It is amazing just how few Indian people seem to know what a synagogue is, even when they have a beautiful 150 year old one just round the corner. In case it was my accent I drew a large Star of David on the guidebook but no one seemed to recongnise it and I still had to find it myself by trial and error. Another thing that isn’t on the guide book tour was the Parsee Fire Temple but I can’t claim to have been super-observant: I photographed it thinking it was another part of the elaborately decorated New India Assurance Company Building and didn’t realise what it was until Milind was helping me to check the captions later that evening.

I could have spent hours reading the memorials at St Thomas’ Cathedral, they certainly tell the other side of the British occupation to the slightly absurd, grandiose architecture that gives the city such a unique character. Life expectancy amongst the young men of the East India Company and later during the Raj was unbelievably short and those lucky enough not to be cut off in their early twenties to go on to serve a full and honoured career seldom saw fifty. Their wives and children generally fared even worse. Grieving relatives consoled themselves with some highly elaborate marble monuments in questionable taste.

The Prince of Wales Museum has been re-named the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya but locals clearly have as much difficulty with this well intentioned mouthful as foreigners because most of the posters now refer to it simply as The Museum. At R300 plus R1,000 for a camera permit (that’s about £15/$21) it wasn’t sensible to pop in for an hour or two so I decided to leave it for another visit. When I popped into the toilets opposite the Flora Fountain I found the “Ladies” awash with soapy water and full of dark skinned street-girls who were happily bathing and laundering just as if they were out in a country stream somewhere. Definitely a “no pictures” situation, chaps!

There are not many pictures of the Mumbai shanty towns in this set of photos. I passed a few but, frankly, they looked rather picturesque in the dry winter sun and, while I’m aware of the statistics, every documentary maker who visits India seems to have done a special on them. Seeing how the poorer people live in the country districts has been of far more interest to me on this trip and I found Mumbai to be a remarkably cosmopolitan city. If anything, the ambiance seemed rather continental; relaxed and tolerant. I didn’t manage to get a picture of the hoards of people crossing the causeway for evening prayers at Haji Ali’s Mosque but was especially pleased with the shot of the Muslim girl sitting on the sea wall with a young man who I don’t think is her brother (092). Ok, so the horizon isn’t straight but it’s still a lovely photograph and a sight you wouldn’t see in many other cities.


  • Chris says:

    Shame about the soapy girls but well done not to take the picture of the Naval Dockyard.

  • When I got back from this excursion Sunil told me the horrific story of Rabbi Holtzberg and his wife, who were murdered by terrorists while the nanny hid their baby boy in the bathroom. This took place in a joint operation with the Taj Hotel attack of 26th November 2008 but was little reported in the European news at the time. Nonetheless, I was surprised to have visited the place and not noticed any evidence of the incident at all. This was cleared up later when I read up on the story and found that the Holtzbergs were actually killed at Nariman House, a Jewish community centre and synagogue situated much closer to the Taj Hotel. No wonder people aren’t too keen to tell visitors where the synagogue is.

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